Inside Dr. Pepperberg’s Lab: Griffin’s Tantrum Forces A “Less Is More” Approach

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African grey parrot, African grey, grey, grey parrot
Griffin enjoys his “tickle.”

In previous blog posts, I’ve written about our daily schedule with the parrots…how we try to balance meals, clean-up, playtime, exercise, and research tasks to ensure that everything gets done on a daily basis. Sometimes, however, good intentions are not enough, and occasionally life conspires to wreck our plans. At those times, we realize that trying to do less will sometimes result in a better outcome overall.

Last week was a perfect example. I had been traveling a lot for several weeks in a row and that always makes both Griffin and Athena, but particularly Griffin, “cranky”…he seems to believe that I need to catch up on all the missed “tickle time” that we normally have. In addition, I had several luncheon meetings scheduled for the week after my return from the most recent trip, and thus I was a bit late getting back to lab three days in a row. Griffin clearly was not pleased, and he acted out rather than perform his experimental trials.

Day 1: Griffin’s Throws a Tantrum

If it hadn’t been so annoying, the first day of his antics would have been funny. The experiment we were trying to run was a four-cup exclusion trial (he is shown that a cup on one side is empty by our removing its cover, so he can infer that a nut is in the other cup and then he has to gamble for a second nut on the other side, guessing between two cups for which he is given no information). Instead of choosing where he thought a nut would be, he grabbed one cup and used it to knock the covers off the others!

Day 2: Demand for Tickles

On the second day, we had a formal inspection from the IACUC (Institutional Care and Use Committee) from Boston University. We adhere to all their standards day in and day out, but we do go over everything a second time on the day of the inspection, just to be sure all is perfect. So, clearly, neither Griffin nor Athena got as much attention as they normally do.

By the time I came in, Griffin was more than a bit ready for his “tickle time,” and even Athena—who really prefers others in the lab to work on her quills—was begging for me to hold her. Both grudgingly did a few trials on one experiment later in the day, but they did not attend closely, and it was clear from their behavior that neither would do a full complement of work. Usually, Griffin is pretty insistent about stating “Wanna nut!” by mid-afternoon—his indication that he is ready to work—but not a peep this time.

Day 3: A Crash Landing

African grey parrot, African grey, grey, grey parrot
Griffin enjoys his tickles from one of our students. Sometimes he likes to be tickled with a spoon. Image courtesy Dr. Irene Pepperberg

But the third day was even more difficult. It started with the maintenance people from the apartment complex coming in to install the air conditioners for the summer. That meant that the birds were moved from room to room to keep them away from open windows, which totally destroyed their daily schedule. After all the equipment was installed and found to be working properly, the student in charge left the birds for just a few moments to get them some special treats (reward for good behavior) from the kitchen—a very normal occurrence that sometimes triggers calls of “Come here,” but nothing dramatic.

This time, however, Griffin, who can’t fly, launched himself from his cage to try to reach her, landing on a bunch of pillows we keep around his cage for just such an eventuality…but it was still a major fall. Next, I came in with two guests and, even though these were people both birds knew and liked, their presence further disrupted the day. Athena did greet them affectionately…but not Griffin. He gave me his “slitted eye” look as he climbed to my hand and said “Tickle.”

And that was it for the rest of the day. Every time we asked him what he wanted; it was “Tickle.” Even a choice between “Nuts or tickles?” resulted in “tickle.” We figured that it was hopeless to try to do any research, as it was clear that he was not going to pay attention. Athena, who usually likes to spend time on her cage playing with her toys, was also clingy and demanding “Tickle”….so, we just gave in and held off on the research, with fingers crossed that by doing less that day we could accomplish more the next!

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